Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Through the Golden Gates

How did I wind up planning a day trip to a woodsy conference center whose heyday was in the mid-19th-century, for the sole purpose of walking through their legendary Golden Gates with other likeminded weirdos? If you know me at all, you’re probably saying “Uh-huh. Sounds like something she’d do.” 

I pin the blame on Isabella Alden (aka “Pansy”), one of Victorian America’s most popular and revered Christian authors. Pansy’s work, unlike that of most of her peers, stands the test of time (notwithstanding the more-than-occasional Temperance plot points). Her warm, earnest, witty novels are richly detailed and beautifully written, crafted to awaken settled, snoozing Christians. Pansy doesn’t flinch at killing off main characters, beloved or not, and exposing the fetid underside of her world. Anything to sound the alarm for the smug churchgoing set. She’s become, hands down, my favorite author of any era. 
My first encounter with Pansy was also my first encounter with Chautauqua (the Victorian-Edwardian Sunday School rallying center and present-day hangout for bougie suburbanites who love NPR). Once I met four maidens who encountered their Savior during one momentous summer in Pansy’s Four Girls at Chautauqua, I was smitten. I needed more. NEEDED. I stalked Ebay for Pansy’s books, buying e-versions when print copies weren’t available. I hounded the patient author of the Isabella Alden tribute blog (it’s perfectly marvelous!). I devoured Pansy’s The Hall in the Grove, Steven’s Mitchell’s Journey, Four Mothers at Chautauqua, and Eighty-Seven—more of her lovingly penned homages to the nation-spanning, artsy-booksy phenomena known as Chautauqua. 
What started as a lark became an obsession. Since I live only a few hours down the freeway from the place itself, I took a day trip last summer. (The account of that visit can be found here on the Isabella Alden blog pages.) There I discovered that the Chautauqua Literary & Science Circle (CLSC), the reading club Pansy lauded and lionized in several of her books, still lived. In fact, it’s America’s longest running book club!   
Well, the friendly archivist informed me that CLSC members could choose any 12 books from their historic booklist, originated in 1878 by Chautauqua founders. This list formed the correspondence school curriculum that provided a well-rounded, college-level education, aimed at mostly unlettered but self-motivated store clerks, housewives, and uppity chambermaids. Oh, bliss! I selected 12 Victorian-era texts and plunged in (see my list here). Any reader who completes their list in the allotted year is encouraged to join their “classmates” at Chautauqua for a traditional parade through the grounds, clad in white and bearing banners from former classes (I’ve got my eye on the Class of 1887 banner; that’s the Pansy Class, named for my favorite author herself!). The parade winds up at the Hall of Philosophy (aka The Hall in the Grove) via those legendary Golden Gates.  I’ll be walking in Pansy’s footsteps! 
To adhere to the all-white graduation dress code and in homage to my Victorian book choices, I contemplated wearing my genuine 19th century petticoat (so handy when I was a Shakespeare-in-the-Park costume mistress). What could be more appropriate? But that kind of whimsy could quickly turn my semi-serious pursuit into a cosplay moment. And really, my inspiration has been less reenactment and more cultural immersion. 
As my year’s reading progressed, I was floored by the rigor of the original 4-year CLSC courses. Members were TESTED on what they’d read, including languages (primarily German, French, and Latin!!), hard sciences, higher mathematics, history, astronomy, literature, and the arts. Today’s relaxed requirements, apparently simplified for a weak-brained contemporary audience, are to read 12 books. Period. Are we smarter or dumber these days? Pop quiz: Can you do long division in your head? Name the Roman emperors in order? Know any planet’s distance from the Sun? Me, neither. But Victorian CLSC grads were expected to. 
Readers can always tell when an author is in love with her subject. For Pansy, every dawn-struck hillside and shoreline sunset, every chiming bell and steamship whistle, each fern-wreathed tree stump and Auditorium bench, every Doric column in the “Hall in the Grove” is a talisman. Here’s a good example of the love she lavishes on her favorite place: “It is impossible to describe to you the delight that was in the boy’s tones as the gleaming pillars of the Hall of Philosophy rose up before him; something in the purity and strength, and quaintness, seemed to have gotten possession of him. Whether it was a shadowy link between him and some ancient scholar or worshipper I cannot say, but certain it is that Robert Fenton, boy though he was, treading the Chautauquan avenues for the first time, felt his young heart thrill with a hope and a determination, neither of which he understood, every time he saw those gleaming pillars.” (The Hall in the Grove)
And through Pansy, I’ve come to love it, too. Only I realize I love a Chautauqua that exists only in her books—a place where Christ’s was the moving Spirit, where truth was sanctified by its relationship to the Fountain of Wisdom, where learning was a means to an end, and that end was to become better equipped to serve the One who created and loves His complex, beautiful, needy world. 
“The Sovereign LORD has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed.” Isaiah 50:4

Monday, July 9, 2018

Wrapt in dense obscurity

Didn’t you assume all Victorian Bible-believing Christians were anti-Darwin? I sure did, until I read the modest “First Lessons in Geology” by Alpheus Spring Packard Jr (with a name like that, Dad had the nerve to name his kid the same?). Packard (who prudently uses A.S. Packard Jr as his penname) was the professor of zoology and geology at Rhode Island’s Brown University and this limp, well-thumbed 1882 Chautauqua text was designed to accompany their Scientific Diagrams Series No 1 (Geology). Since I don’t have said diagrams, I must be content with imagining the soggy prehistoric shores as described by Packard in vivid detail. 
I picture this chap in jodhpurs and a pith helmet, pickax at the ready, tramping through swampy fields and clambering over rocky mountainsides. He occasionally shares highlights of his personal adventures of climbing volcanoes, wading through ferny forests, and spelunking for fossils in the eastern US. These insights are either to reassure the young reader that he’s legit or to interject a note of personality in a teeming morass of scientific prose. 
As far as I can tell, Packard just assumes that anyone with even a modest amount of brains can tell from the evidence that the earth is zillions of years old—Professor Packard would find the current conservative adherence to a 6-thousand-year-old Earth model to be hooey on a Jurassic scale.  One interesting feature is the emphasis on America—chapter headers call out “American During the Silurian Period” and he lovingly details American-grown prehistoric flora and fauna, like wooly mammoth herds frolicking along while antediluvian urchins gaped in wonder. 
This quasi-Darwinian tribute text surprisingly and routinely combines creation and evolution, without making a clear distinction or even much of a fuss. His prose is restrained by Victorian standards, but there are the era’s signature flourishes, word pictures that unfurl like delicate Triassic ferns: “It is so simple an agent as running water rather than volcanic upheavals, which has, late in the world’s history, changed the face of nature, and adorned the earth with carved work, combining grandeur and sublimity with a delicacy and beauty of finish which elevates and informs the soul of man with the loftiest and finest feelings.” (pg 20). Another favorite of mine: “…there swam schools of smaller, slighter ganoid fishes, whose silvery chased and fretted plates of enamel gleamed in the bright clear waters lit up by the torrid rays of a Devonian sun.” (pg 81) 
Packard presents his scenarios with a fait accompli flair and his conclusion tidies up all the loose ends and perhaps tries to assuage the fears of the Sunday School crowd: “Such, then, is the story of creation. And when we contemplate the creative or evolutional force which is immanent in nature, who can logically deny that here we are dealing with the evidences of the existence of an all-pervading and all-wise Intelligence outside of the material world, the Origin and Creator of all things?” (pg 127) 
I wonder…is it significant that he concludes his work with a question mark?

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” Genesis 1: 1,2

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Germanicus

How did I manage to miss a pretty key chapter of Roman conquest history? Maybe Boomer teachers were too caught up in current events like Vietnam to inform us that Caesar’s troops spent a quite a bit of time putting down the wild tribes of Germany (aka my ancestors!). The 1888 history text I rocketed through this week (An Outline History of Rome by Dr. John H. Vincent and James R. Joy) offers the first solid explanation I’ve heard about why one of the more famous Augustine descendants was called “Germanicus” (tip: there’s a hint, right there, in his name!). Vincent and Joy offer endgame spoilers like: “But the Germans who dwelt in the unknown forest region beyond the (Rhine) river were a constant menace to the peace of the empire.” (pg 183-184). That’s what we’d call a foreshadowing in the literary world because these are the fellows who brought Rome’s empire to a messy halt a few centuries later. (And BTW, there’s a *very* active subculture out there of men in basements who build battlefields over abandoned ping-pong tables, and populate them with tiny action figures of Gauls, Celts, and Roman soldiers. I discovered this when looking for a juicy image with which to grace this post. Scary.)

Aside from the typically scathingly elegant 19th century condemnation for those Romans who devolved from upright, stable, stern family men to licentious, libertine slackers, Vincent and Joy gallop through Roman history with gusto. And, when the action starts getting hot and heavy, these normally chatty chaps present it in surprisingly telegraphic prose. In fact, in some battle sequences, the authors lose their Victorian dignity and sound more like boys yelling out the really cool parts to each other. Passages fluctuate between meandering prosily through ancestry accounts and breezing along, assuming readers are well familiar with famous Latin phrases like “Vini, Vidi, Vici” and “crossing the Rubicon.” Well, let’s say those phrases USED to be famous (see my Victorian-esque rant against the dumbing down of American education here).

Hilariously awful portrait sketches are sprinkled about, some laughable bad. I doubt any reader who encounters their hook-nosed Cleopatra (a vile, wicked woman in their estimation, whose treachery, cowardice, and conniving helped bring down a tottering empire) would ever think “Wow, Anthony, she was soooo worth it!”

The battle for Roman rulership rages briskly over the centuries as we plow along. Christians are persecuted, Jews are scattered, epic walls are erected (so THAT’S who Hadrian is!), temples are demolished.  It’s a bit like the toga-clad version of 1 and 2 Kings and Chronicles—power-mad men and their conquests, big and small. After a while, the Caesars’ names all blur together…Octavius, Vespasian, Honorius, Caligula. The pagi (pagans) and the haiden (heathens) win out in the end as the barbarians trample the culture under their Visigothic feet. When the Mongol hordes of Attila the Hun (aka “The Scourge of God”—how’d you like that for a nickname?) showed up in the middle of the 5th century, “panic preceded their advance, and desolation followed in their wake.” (pg 231) Aetius, a Roman general, defeated him in France, thus, according to Vincent and Joy, saving Western Europe from barbarism and claiming he “preserved for modern times the civilization of the Greeks and Romans.” (pg 231). Which turns out to be a very good thing for readers like us!

I flat-out love Dr. Vincent’s assumptive claims about why God allowed the Roman empire to crush all comers.. “Little did the men who made Rome the power and the terror it was dream that its aggressions and control were but preparations for the coming of One mightier than any or all of the rulers over the vast empire. Forerunners of the King of kings were all these crowned and sceptered chieftains. They built their ships that Paul and his associates might sail the Eastern seas. They stretched out broad and smooth and well-defended highways that God’s word of gospel grace might the more swiftly run. Thus man’s work furthers God’s plan. They unify government and spread abroad a common speech, that Hebrew truth, informed by a new and living Spirit, may sweep from east to west, from north to south, and give news of one salvation to all men every-where.” (pg 4) “Rome has her lessons for the true Church of Jesus Christ, lessons of warning, emphatic and earnest, against worldly ambition, greed of gold, and earthly influence.” (pg 5)

You know how I’ve mentioned finding little surprises tucked into these vintage texts? Well, this one did not disappoint. A little rectangle of paper was tucked into the chapter discussing the learned Marcus Aurelius, author of “Meditations” (which our authors reluctantly admit is “among the noblest and purest of heathen writings” pg 213). The rectangle is V-cut in the middle, creating a sort of match-up icebreaker quiz of the inked quote: “Beware of entrance to a quarrel; but being in, bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.” It’s a quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and how it wound up with Marcus is a mystery, but, as always, such little treasures remind me of the Victorian emphasis on the importance of memorizing key quotes, dates, names, and facts.

It’s safe to say I’ve learned more about the Roman empire in a week, reading this book, than in the many months spent learning ancient history as a kid. Why? Well, maybe it’s my Pansy-fed motivation? After reading Isabella (“Pansy”) Alden’s The Hall in the Grove, I got a wee bit obsessed with Chautauqua and especially with Pansy’s depictions of the power of education on the underserved, illiterate “lower classes” of her day and how much belief she and her peers had in the power of the written word to uplift the masses. I wanted to read firsthand what ignited the passion in her ‘Paul Adams” character that took him from the saloon to sobriety to scholar. And as I close the covers of this little brown book, I begin to see how Rome’s valor and vanity could fan to flame a latent genius in even such as he.  

“Why do the nations rage and the peoples imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord. The One enthroned in Heaven laughs.” Psalm 2: 1-2, 4

Friday, June 29, 2018

Lingua franca

As I mentioned in my prior post, I wrote my English Comp ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ essay on the rock-solid theme: Why We Should Study the Classics. I assume I did okay, as I was excused from Freshman English. Mrs. Briggs, my incredibly staunch Classics-loving AP English teacher, would have been proud—she managed to drill into my head the absolute necessity of a classical education. Without it, she warned direly, we would not be able to communicate with other educated (aka civilized) Americans. We would be considered backwards dolts, fit only for menial labor and would spend the rest of our lives excitedly thumbing through (but not purchasing!) impulse-buy magazines at the grocery store. We would never find a worthy mate, be unable to vote intelligently, and in fact, should probably be neutered so we wouldn’t produce more idiots like ourselves. (I told you she was staunch.) 
I blithely adhered to her dictums and continued in the same vein as I scaled the heady heights of greater knowledge. Staying in that lane was easy; my tiny, conservative Pennsylvania college profs had all quaffed from the same stream. In order to qualify as a truly educated American, you needed to master the central core of wisdom, which was outlined helpfully by centuries of English prep schools and transplanted here by the aristocratic, elitist patriarchy. Fluency in that lingua franca assured your place in legitimate society. Enter Chautauqua, the first serious attempt to raise the standard of education for those least likely to have dreamed they’d ever approach that altar. 
Do I still believe this? Absolutely not. The only thing a classics education does now is separate the student from the masses, not build a bridge. Unless you’re planning to teach the classics (the academic equivalent of working in a buggy whip factory), there’s simply no point in it—at this point in American history, the classics are for recreational use only. 
Mrs. Briggs used to lecture us that we were learning a common language that would enable us to enter a rarified world of opportunity and camaraderie with the finest minds of the ages. And, in a way, that’s still true. I routinely weep over the elegant turns-of-phrases I encounter in Isabella (Pansy) Alden’s works; the nobility of her heroes, the thoughtful story arcs that bring scripture into the everyday life in a beautiful way. But, that ship sailed a few decades ago and for my money, it’s never coming back. 
When a society is gleefully content with the shattered English language used in texting, tweeting, snapchatting, and swaps emojis for an expression of one’s feelings, a meandering syntax doesn’t stand a chance. With the bathwater of cursive, school prayer, rote learning of uplifting texts (Scriptural and otherwise), we often throw out the baby of restraint, nobility, discretion, politeness, and grace. Everyone is up in everyone’s grill. Wildly jiving to your earbud tunes on street-corners while you wait for the bus? No problem, no one will bat an eye. Boarding a plane in your pajamas (and you’re not 3 years old)? No worries, the only folks dressed for travel anymore are the elderly and the stews. Your emails are patrolled by spellcheck; your calls are robot-generated. 
So, why am I studying a year’s worth of 19th century texts? I want to catch a glimpse of what they knew, this generation that could do long division in their heads, memorize the lists of the conquering Roman Caesars, and knew who Jeroboam was. I want to believe that if I stood at an “at home” evening with a CLSC-trained chambermaid, I might be able to hold my own.

“I give you sound learning; so do not forsake my teaching.” Job 4:2

Monday, June 25, 2018

Get me to the Greek

Have you ever wondered why so many Eastern US cities have Greek names, and not just any ol’ Greek names, but those from ancient Greek history? Syracuse, Troy, Ionia, Athens, Ithaca, Sparta, Corinth, Crete,’s because American schools used to teach something called “The Classics.” 18-20th century British and US prep schools and colleges prided themselves on the rigor of these courses comprised of Latin and the accompanying Greco-Roman literature. And everybody was expected to know and understand this common core of knowledge. If you didn’t, you weren’t considered truly educated. That’s why Chautauqua’s CLSC book list was jammed with classics; to expose that chambermaid or blacksmith to Pericles and understand why the battle of Marathon was last bastion against the Barbarian hoards threatening modern Europe’s future. I read the Chautauqua-published text “An Outline History of Greece” by John H. Vincent and James R. Joy (1888) with intense pleasure…so much so, that I might take another turn at it when I’m not under the gun to wrap up my required reading!  

In our country’s early history, education wasn’t necessarily learning to express yourself (in fact, that was rather frowned on), but existed to inscribe the student’s tabula rasa with the finest and best the world had ever produced. Again, that would be the Greeks. Their unmatched valor as warriors, their astuteness as statesmen, their democratic ideals, their brilliance in drama, poetry, the arts, mathematics, literature—essentially, everything started with the Greeks! Such studies were the common coin of the higher education and the architecture of our American social order. Western Civilization, boiled down, was essentially a shanghaied cultural history. And we stole it from the Greeks. This compact book is an idyllic ode to Western Civilization, written in the lyric, exultant voice of one who nearly worships anything that hails from Attic shores. 
See, you don’t probably realize that “Attica” is another word for Greece, do you? Exactly! That’s how distant we are from our rote-based education’s early Spartan sternness (another wasted reference for some, alas). How far we’ve come from the naïve and quaint elders who optimistically named villages for Ancient Greece’s centers of heroism or learning. How far we’ve come from the practice of memorizing huge swathes of the Odyssey or Iliad! The only Homer today’s students know is an idiotic, donut-eating cartoon. If I say “Trojan” what do you think of? Stalwart soldiers? Probably not. See? The modern schoolkid lolls in the lap of indolence, wafting the palm leaf of stupor, languishing away on the modern isle of the lotus-eaters (another reference that probably sailed over the average contemporary reader’s head). 
I’m glad I had what could now be called a “classical education” in the days when the expectation was to trash the old and fling open the doors of the Academy to modern voices. Throwing over the traces of tradition and diversifying the canon, our high school was behind the curve and just on the cusp of the Woodstock-era sea change. Our VERY old-school principal insisted on a classical education—not on his watch would Western Civilization decline! When he retired, the deluge. While I never had the school-age joys of deeply exploring “the Classics,” my conservative Christian college (trying to update their curriculum) blurred their version into something called “Humanities,” roping in art, archeology, music, and architecture with literature. I even wrote my entrance exam paper on why the classics are essential! Can you even IMAGINE anyone saying that today?

You’ll find the stories of revolt, treachery, bravery, slavery, disgrace and triumph here—all written in that wonderfully fluid, purple prose I adore so. No one here is in trouble; they’re in “deadly peril.” Here’s a perfect example of why I wish I were swinging in a hammock, all alone, reading this, rather than hunched over a limp sandwich, nibbling furtively, as I fend off office clamor and try to concentrate. You can’t read a sentence like this without wanting to read it aloud, in ringing tones: “The firebrands smoldered for another decade before they broke out into the conflagration in which the last remnant of Athenian supremacy was consumed.” I mean, really! Today’s digitized and distracted students would never get the end of that sentence without falling asleep or checking Instagram!

Okay, one more example I just can’t bear not to share: “To the possession of vast wealth this man added a readiness of wit, a fertility of invention, a power of complaisance, which invested his manner, when he wished to please, with a singular charm. He was utterly selfish and unscrupulous; and, if we are to believe the stories told of him, his youthful career was one of gilded sensuality and of barbarous ruffianism, hidden under a veil of superficial refinement.” Who is this amazing character? Alcibiades, if you want to know; BTW, a name any Victorian schoolchild would be familiar with!

Read any famous Victorian novel, like Little Women, and you’ll find a dozen references to classic Greek culture, mythology or practice. A group of like-minded young men might style themselves as the “Sacred Band”-that’s a nod to the famed Theban army whose grit and courage was unparalleled in their time. Ever heard of them? I didn’t think so. Know what the Gordian Knot is? Is the glorious defeat of the Spartan 300 a violent video game or CGI extravaganza to you? Why did many Victorian-era libraries and literary circles call themselves Lyceum? Why is a closemouthed person termed “laconic”? Ancient Sparta was also known as Laconia, and were taught to speak in “short, pithy sentences.” Surprised? Me, too. Yeah, you can look this stuff up on Wiki, but when you were a pupil in any respectable school in the 1800s, you were TAUGHT it. Incredible, right? And that ship has sailed, I’m sure, never to approach these shores again. Today’s common cultural references—zombies. ‘Nuf said. What’s the score? These days:  Barbarians 1, Western Civ, 0.   

Leonidas, the Spartan 300’s heroic leader, was told that the Persian enemy was so numerous, that the flight of their many arrows would darken the sun. He replied, “Then we shall fight in the shade.” If your heart quickens a bit when you read that, and you wish you had a noble cause in which to fight, I suspect you’re a closet Romantic (like me) and might just need to read this book!

Bonus: I am always delighted when I find little slips of newspaper tucked into these vintage volumes…this one hid a carefully clipped CLSC notice (see image below--it's sitting on the little book that we're discussing! See the COOL CLSC emblem on the cover! Sweet, right?). The book’s diligent owner, Mrs. Nellie Jordan (whose penciled name graces the flyleaf of this wee book), saved a clipping of the announcement of her CLSC meeting (I only wish I had a time machine!). It reads as follows:  Clio CLC will meet with Mrs. Nellie Jordan Friday evening Nov. 30, 1888, at seven o’clock; the following program will be observed:

1.      Roll Call. Names of authors mention in the required readings.

2.      Table Talk. Current Events.

3.      Last half of questions on “Outline History” in November Chau.

4.      Reading Abou Ben Adem, Mrs. Nellie Jordan.

5.      Biographical sketch of persons named on page 261-272 in Prep Greek.

6.      Reading selections from Charity by Cowper, Rev S.H. Woodrow. To be followed by debate: “Is relief giving the cause of pauperism.”

 “Study to show thyself approved, a workman that needeth not be ashamed…” 2 Timothy 2:15

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The poor are always with us

You can’t plan these things, really. Our country is currently experiencing a crisis around immigration and here I’m writing about a Victorian-era response to an immigration crisis. What are the odds? Anyway, here goes…

You can lead a horse to water. A leopard can’t change its spots. Water seeks its own level. Putting lipstick on a pig. Silk purse from a sow’s ear. I wonder just how many proverbs and wise sayings warn us about the folly of expecting to transform society with ideals concocted in the ivory towers of idealism? In the late 1800s, the first wave of college-educated women descended on an unsuspecting world with the expectation that finally, things would be changed by the work of their lily-white hands. Nurtured on Tolstoy, Walt Whitman, and Jacob Riis, they turned their naïve, sincere eyes on the wretched masses who thronged urban alleyways and vowed to spend their youth and energy turning the tide of human suffering.

Jane Addams, offspring of a senator who got frequent notes from Abraham Lincoln, worshipped her Quaker father’s pacifist ways and helped found the American “Settlement” movement—the first serious effort to help the poor by living among them. Her history-making venture was Hull-House, a huge, ramshackle building that housed both her band of earnest, eager social missionaries and some of the needy they served. "Twenty Years at Hull-House", written in 1911, chronicles the life and work of Jane Addams and her coterie of mostly female helpers. Their mission: to ease burdens, offer hope and a helping hand to the city’s poor immigrant population while preserving their self-esteem, and to do so while sharing their ghettos, not commuting in from the luxurious, leafy suburbs.

I wanted to like this book—and its author—much more than I did. I admired her candor in admitting that young, idealistic woman from privileged backgrounds really have no idea what they’re doing, all good intentions aside. I appreciated her ferocity in championing the interests of Chicago’s poorest; her dawning recognition that overlaying their lives with upper crust culture might be a handicap rather than a hand up. I applauded her when she encouraged 2nd generation immigrant kids to respect and cherish the handicrafts of their elders. She traveled to Russia to meet her hero, Tolstoy, only to get a scolding from the literary giant for her preposterous leg o' mutton sleeves. She established a textile museum,and founded who knows how many clubs and organizations that promoted good fellowship and outreach for the downtrodden. She got all kinds of wonderfully humane laws passed about child labor, sought justice for union scabs, redirected immigrant girls who had been hustled into prostitution, and much more. So, why the lukewarm response for this first female Nobel Peace Prize winner?

I’m not sure, unless it’s the minor strain of self-righteousness in this weighty, very politicized recounting. I felt I was reading a sort of proto-socialism proclamation—and her contemporaries apparently shared my impressions, as she was often associated with the radical anarchist movements of the early 20th century. But then, Jane Addams did more in her life that I could ever hope to even consider, so who am I to even cast the tiniest shadow upon her glory? Her aspirations were noble: “ feed the mind of the worker, to connect it with the larger world, outside of his immediate surroundings, has always been the object of art” (pg 435). But art for art’s sake sometimes falls short. She herself bemoans the futility of some of her work and recognizes the fleeting nature of the “...fanatic’s joy in seeing his own formula translated into action” (pg 269).

I think at the core, I’m sad she barely acknowledges (at least in this book) the self-same work being done by Christians in her neighborhood. And when she does, she dilutes the evangelical outreach by saying it's done to imitate Christ (and she makes up a quote from Jesus to substantiate her point of weird!). If I hadn’t been reading a lot of other Victorian books by Christian authors, I might not have known from this book that any such Christian work took place, much less that it was widespread and hugely influential. Addams tended to view “religious” charities as somewhat disingenuous because such workers based their earthly efforts on eternal values. 

“Twenty Years at Hull-House” is really a perfect representative of the changes to Chautauqua as it morphed from a Christ-centered training conference for Sunday School teachers to its current multi-cultural celebration of all things artistic. Settlement work, once confined to Christians (since they were the only population willing to help the extreme poor) was separated from its sacred roots and transplanted in the shallower field of charity by Jane’s contemporaries and cronies.

There is more than one form of poverty and the poverty of a hopeless life can be eased, but not transformed, by a new job or learning to play the piano. Jesus spoke truth when He admonished us that “the poor you have with you always.” For all Jane’s sacrificial work, huge swathes of urban Chicago remain essentially unchanged to this day. Hull-House has become a museum and the non-spiritual lionizing of art and culture seems to be a big part of its continuing mission. Because I believe, from experience, that only the Gospel transforms lives permanently, I have no hope of a beautiful painting, brilliant literature, a college degree or an inspiring song providing rescue from the deepest poverty. Only the Gospel offers forgiveness from sin and the expectation of a life of light and joy beyond this vale of broken dreams.  

“Having a form of godliness but denying the Power thereof…” 2 Timothy 3:5

Monday, June 11, 2018

Browning’s broken arcs

Am I the only English major on the planet who never really examined the work of Robert Browning? I mean, yes, sure, sure, everyone knows about his flaming love for Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the romantic trauma that shook Victorian England when he essentially scooped up this wan, invalid poetess and took her off to Italy where they wrote passionate sonnets to each other, right? But what I didn’t know (and now do, thanks to the CLSC reading list!) is that Robert B was a downright Christian poet! I mean, really and truly—much of his poetic outpourings center around his deep, thoughtful, exultant faith in Christ and how he can live it out in this world. Who knew?

Browning views his world with the slightly foggy gaze of the true poet and he never met a lonely dandelion or a city-dweller he didn’t want to immortalize. He’s known for his lengthy poetic portraits of folks like a Syrian, Bible-era traveling salesman, the fishmonger on the street or his pale-but-beautiful beloved. In this “greatest hits” volume, I keep stumbling across poetic snippets I’ve read in other books, like the romances of Christian author Grace Livingston Hill. One of her heroes will start spouting “All that I know of a certain star is, it can throw (like the angled spar) now a dart of red, now a dart of blue…” and the well-read heroine will rapturously finish with the remainder of the stanza. Who knew that was Browning? And “the first fine careless rapture”—(Lord Peter Whimsey fans will recognize that..). And “Oh, to be in England, now that April’s there..” Yep, all Browning. If you haven’t come across a Browning poem since your English teacher tried to pound “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix” into your junior high noggin, you might want to give him a go.

Our burly poet often goes off in raptures about single phenomena, like a lunar rainbow, dragging out the metaphor for ages, belaboring it to the point where the editor of this slim volume is finally forced to cut out chunks, give us the missing gist in italics, and then throw us into the maelstrom again in stanza IIX. Because Browning is such a towering figure in English poetry, there’s nothing original I could possible say to praise or pan him. I can add this—I like him.

Browning takes his status as a poet very, very seriously (now, remember, this was the era when the quality and tenor of poetry was argued at parties, critiqued in the newspaper, and used as maiden-bait by mustachioed-and-mutton-chopped chaps). Poetically defending his oeuvre and his life-choices, Browning occasionally has his lyrical dukes up when critics knock his latest ballad. This compilation’s editor pegs Browning aright when he quotes Browning protests that he’s not TRYING to be difficult (something he apparently had to do a lot because of his oddball word choices and blunt rhymes) “Nor do I apprehend any more charges of being willfully obscure, unconscientiously careless or perversely harsh.” (Browning).

Our the editor gently suggests: “The true explanation of it (Browning’s obscurity) seems to be…that he does not think of his audience as he writes, his only care being to express the thought in the way that comes most natural to him….the reader is brought face to face with some soul; the poet has stepped aside…” (pg ii, iii).  

The book’s final poem (Christmas Eve and Easter Day) addresses modern German criticism (a frequent topic in Isabella Alden’s time—German higher criticism claimed that the Scriptures were not Truth, but contained truth and that the Bible was basically out-of-date and can’t be looked at as historically reliable, etc. Our generation’s weekly mainline denomination church closing are part of that harvest.). Listen to Browning dismiss higher criticism with a poetic glove-slapping: “Say rather, such truths looked false to your eyes, with his provings and parallels twisted and twined, till how could you know them, grown double their size in the natural fog of the good man’s mind…” (Christmas Eve, IV).

Browning’s faith speaks with elegance and passion, as when he extols a forgotten musician, Abt Vogler, citing that the music Abt makes is only a necessarily weaker earthly version of the divine music of the spheres. In Browning’s lyrical celebration of these ethereal echoes, is he also making a few claims for his poems?

Therefore to whom turn I but to Thee, the ineffable Name?
Builder and maker, thou, of houses not made with hands!
What, have fear of change from thee who art ever the same?
Doubt that they power can fill the heart that thy power expands? 
There shall never be one lost good! What was, shall live as before: 
The evil is null, is nought, is silence implying sounds;
What was good, shall be good, with, for evil, so much good more;
On the earth the broken arcs; in the heaven, a perfect round.
(Abt Vogler, stanza IX)

And BTW, what’s with the pomegranates in the book’s title? They’re a fruit that’s famously difficult to eat—you’ve got to patiently score, section and segment the leathery peel to obtain the sweet, succulent, tartly delicious seeds. Like Browning’s poetry; you’ve got to do some digging, but oh, the luscious rewards. 
“My heart is overflowing with a good theme; I recite my composition concerning the King;
My tongue is the pen of a ready writer.” Psalm 45:1

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Recess at the school of calamity

“Nothing now remains to mark the spot but some acres of confused and unintelligible ruins…”

I’m not sure if anyone else out there wonders about Bible stories like me, but when I read that King David fled Jerusalem when he heard his vain, traitorous son Absalom was heading to town with a huge army, I thought “what a coward!” It’s only after I read The Histories of Cyrus the Great and Alexander the Great by Jacob Abbot (1881) as part of my CLSC year that I understood David’s actions weren’t cowardice but a shepherd-king’s heart for his people.

It took this 19th century book to instruct me in the art of war by way of two of history’s most renowned conquerors. Their temperaments differed, but both shared what Abbott calls “a mysterious and almost unbounded ascendency over all within their influence.”

Abbott has a remarkable facility for making grand statements like this—he clearly adores both his subjects; Cyrus and Alexander have reached through what I’m sure he would call “the mists of time” to touch his imagination and supply his pen with flourishes and fire.

The key to their flaming successes, Abbott says, is that the character of these men required them to act as they did: “He (Alexander) lived, in fact, in an age when great personal and mental powers had scarcely any other field for their exercise then this...” (“this” being world conquest, of course) "He entered upon his career with great ardor and the position in which he was placed gave him the opportunity to act in it with prodigious effect.” (pg 14, Alexander the Great).

(Aside: When was the last time you encountered the word “prodigious?” In fact, when was the last time you read a sentence that didn’t start with “so” or end with “right?”?) There are REAMS of similarly dense, delightful writing to wade through in this book: I never dreamed this “dusty history” would be a page-turner.

So, (see what I mean?) to return to David’s seemingly chicken-hearted abandonment of Jerusalem, pgs. 69-70 in the Alexander portion of this chubby tome inform us of the horrors of sacking a city, detailed with so much delicacy that the author’s literary aversion to spelling it out makes it somehow even worse:

“While the besieged do thus surrender (immediately), they save themselves a vast amount of suffering, for the carrying of a city by assault is perhaps the most horrible scene which the passions and crimes of men ever offer to the view of heaven. It is horrible, because the soldiers, exasperated to fury by the resistance which they meet with and by the awful malignity of the passions always excited in the hour of battle…Soldiers, under such circumstances, can not be restrained, and no imagination can conceive the horrors of the sacking of a city, carried by assault, after a protracted siege. Tigers do not spring upon their prey with greater ferocity than man springs, under such circumstances, to the perpetration of every possible cruelty upon his fellow man. …the maddened and victorious assaulters suddenly burst into the sacred scenes of domestic peace, and seclusion, and love—the very worst of men, filled with the worst of passion, stimulated by the resistance they have encountered and licensed by their victory to give all their passions the fullest and most unrestricted gratification. To plunder, burn, destroy and kill are the lighter and more harmless of the crimes they perpetrate.”

Therefore, I have learned to admire David’s wisdom in taking Absalom’s “target” (himself) out of the city and not arousing the pent-up fury of his betrayer's men. Sorry for the inadvertent character assassination, David!  

Alexander seems to be Abbott’s favorite—Cyrus had a great start as a perfectly charming, smart little fellow in the Persian court, but he earned Abbott’s disgust by becoming a heartless dictator in the “Oriental style” –lavish, luxurious, and cruel: “From being an artless and generous-minded child, he had become a calculating, ambitious and aspiring man, and he was preparing to take his part in the great public contests and struggles of the day with the same eagerness for self-aggrandizement and the same unconcern for the welfare and happiness of others, which always characterizes the spirit of ambition and love of power.” (pg 124—Cyrus).

Interestingly (at least to me!) is the author’s Cyrus tale onramp. Abbott avers that everything we know about Cyrus comes from two sources, both of whom are somewhat suspect—one wrote entertainment for ancient Grecian theater-goers a court and the other was a military historian, known for adding a bit of hyperbolic flair to his works from time to time. Abbott states: “It is now far more important for us to know what the story is which has for eighteen-hundred years been read and listened to by every generation of men, than what the actual events were in which the tale thus told had its origin.” (pg 35).  How post-modern is that?

Remember King Croesus, the richest king alive? He became a pet captive of Cyrus at some point; honored for his kingdom even though sidelined by history. We’ll give him the final word from the perspective of the conquered: “I ought to apologize,” said he, “for presuming to offer any counsel, captive as I am; but I have derived, in the school of calamity and misfortune in which I have been taught, some advantages for leaning wisdom which you have never enjoyed.” (pg 277). In Abbott’s book, we’re treated to a balanced view of the pros and cons of world domination and we see that there are some things you just can’t learn from the back of a charging warhorse.

Abbott’s lively biographies of two ancient dominating rulers has the distinct whisper of Christian ethics throughout—that the conquered have a dignity and worth never respected or acknowledged by any but his readers, perhaps. We can admire Alexander and Cyrus, as Abbott clearly does, but we see they are as much a part of the past as any other man on earth; only kept alive by those who read their exploits.

Cue Shelley’s Ozymandias:
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.” I Peter 1:24

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The enervating grasp of vulgarity

“If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you” seems to be the underlying principle of the doorstop-weight tome 1881 A Short History of Art by Julie B. De Forest. Ms. De Forest’s credentials are actually never introduced, but her terse judgements (and dismissals) of several schools and regional species of art are delivered with a crisp, no-nonsense tone that leaves no room for discussion. I kind of like it and it’s pretty interesting to see just how far we’ve come as a culture from this sort of super-authoritative approach to teaching.

I could fill pages (she certainly did!) with her epigrammatic condemnations—here are a few characteristic pronouncements:

“Indeed, we may detect even in sculpture the incipient signs of a decaying empire, which in less than fifty years crumbles to pieces.” (p 34)

“Whether art in Asia Minor would have developed any originality of not, it is difficult to say; for, when Greek colonies established themselves there, Greek ideas extinguished whatever life there may have been in the indigenous art of the country.” (p44)

“Above all, Greek architecture was an organic whole, and not an amalgamation of borrowed elements. All its forms were simple and easily understood, and appealed, therefor, not only to the man born and bred a Greek in the days of Pericles, but to all nations and all time.” (p 61)

“The oriental love of splendor and of symbolism was clearly shown and fully gratified by intricate ceremonies, gorgeous vestments, and beautiful decorative details.” (p121)

“We have treated Byzantine art as a whole, because there is so little variety about it, that it is not worth while to return to it.” (p128)

“The barbarism of the North, from the earliest dawn of history, form a ‘dim background to the warmth and light of the Mediterranean coast.’ It was on this far-off horizon that the mist gathered, and the clouds thickened, unperceived. The Romans sank deeper and deeper into the enervating grasp of luxury, and when the storm burst over their heads they were helpless before it.” (p135)

Oh, and let’s not forget this one: “If we fail today to see the innermost hidden meaning in every detail (of Gothic Architecture), we are unconsciously impressed by the faithful and lavish completeness of the whole, as we can never be impressed by the wise economy of later productions of ecclesiastical architecture.” (p159)

There are gems like this on every page and what it tells me of the 19th century is that experts believed in the totality of their judgments and that there must have been an awful lot of journalistic spats conducted over these Jovian statements, particularly as they came from a woman.

Art here is reduced to a science, as were so many other academic disciples in this era—formulae and detailed examination of cause-and-effect are de riguer and there’s a deep distrust and dislike for emotionalism. The author’s curled lip and the rolled eye surface when reviewing florid forms and over-emoting sculptures (she’s not a fan of Michelangelo AT ALL…too much DRAMA). “Human nature,” she declares, “cannot long endure that finer air which blows on the summits of idealism, and soon longs again for the thicker atmosphere of earthly lowlands.” (p200) This to explain the fall of the high renaissance in Italy, of all things.

There’s a fine mist of withering, barely disguised scorn for artistic emotional outbursts whether in marble, paint or timber; they’re pegged “exaggerated sentiment, violent action, and mannerism…they (Da Vinci wannabees) sought to create ideals, but only succeeded in producing far-fetched effects. They had no thoughts to express; and their soulless forms are mere mannerisms, that are neither attractive nor interesting.” (p213) "Soulless" is her highest insult, reserved for artists who fail to rise to her often-baffling criteria.

Her overt disgust for these talentless hacks is balanced by a delicate but distinct fawning rapture over the perplexing dignity of religious figures in famed works. Our author breathes a dainty sigh of relief when noting how Saint Sebastian, bristling with arrows, meekly lifts his curly head without a grimace or furrow to mar his beauty in one Renaissance depiction. Restraint, she indicates repeatedly, is the hallmark of a truly cultured artistic expression. Our author finds the freedom that our modern culture lionizes crude, disturbing, and vulgar.

The coolest thing I found in these pages (which are jam-packed with etched copies of many of the works she covers as such a violent clip) was a snipped chart from an 1880 Chautauquan newspaper. This tattered scrap details the Chautauqua Literary and Science Circle Class of 1882 Third Year Studies, and on it the previous owner of this book penciled faint Xs on those books he/she’d already tackled: Church History by Dr. Hurst; The Tongue of Fire by Arthur; Cyrus to Alexander by Jacob Abbott (stay tuned for a review of that one on this blog…I’ve got it, too!). This weary piece of paper, obviously carried about in a pocket or purse, tells me the reader was serious about walking under the golden arches up to the Hall in the Grove on Commencement Day.  Seeing this much-creased, faithful witness to the unknown student’s fervor inspires me to be as faithful to my self-imposed discipline.  

“Be not weary in well-doing.” Galatians 6:9

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Jesus at work: reflections on workplace drama

So, I’ve been doing a lot of praying about how I can embrace my cross here at work. If I can’t create work that’s up to my standards, thanks to politics and/or egos, and must be content with committee-built blandness, how can I display God’s glory? How can I look on this and say “This is good” as God said, surveying His work? I’m realizing, more and more, that my day job work has less to do with “quality output” and everything to do with being a force for positive good and God’s love to my co-workers.
My attitude—now that much, I’m in “charge” of. That I can control, to the degree I listen to His ongoing word to deny myself. How awesomely easy is it to deny yourself, when your “self” isn’t respected anyway by the corporate machine? So, as I consider this in the light of Scripture, the very things that are driving me nuts here can, if I allow them, drive me to the cross. They’re actually my friends (as James declares), the very things making it easy to see where I need to deny myself and how I can, very practically, pick up my own cross and follow Him.
The nails that pin me to my workday cross are the annoying coworker—can I cover his transgressions and by this show that I am “seeking love” (Prov 12:9)? If I let the everyday, stress-related, obnoxious behavior flow past me, without demanding my rights—isn’t that another denial of self? If I’m insisting on expressing my gifts, by definition, I’m not denying myself—and Jesus tells me to die to self, express HIM, and lose my life in order to find it.
What if I never write a sentence I’m proud of again? What if I never produce something I’d be willing to have my name attached to? What if I never “shine” at my workplace? Daniel 12:3 tells me that “…those who are wise shall shine as brightly as the firmament, and those who bring many to righteousness will shine like the sun, forever and ever” Okay, Lord. Let that be my shining and glory, to bring glory to You.
Several recent workplace issues have brought me to a place of humbling; they’re showing me THIS is why I’m here. Not to write brilliant copy that sells cheap wine, but to help my coworkers get through their stressful days without adding to their load with attitude. To find little ways to be an encourager. To offer to pray when hard times hit their families. To surprise a heavy-laden team member with some ‘non-union’ help—even if that means collating papers (paper cuts!!), schlepping product to the parking lot, organizing files, etc. All stuff ‘beneath my paygrade’—but if Jesus can wash dirty disciple feet, I can certainly do all things to His glory.
Who am I looking to promote in my job, after all? Jesus or me? When I gave my life and heart to Him, I signed up to be His servant and it’s His prerogative to do with my life what He knows is best—what He knows will conform me to the image of His Son. This was the Bible verse on today’s Daily Light (the Anne Graham Lotz devotional) segment.. “ Who is the man that fears the Lord? Him shall He teach in the way He chooses.” (emphasis mine) Psalm 25:12
Coincidence? I think not.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Fallow ground (a personal reflection)

When I read Isabella Alden's 19th century novels about the "Chautauqua Girls," one in the series absorbs me in a special way. "Ruth Erskine's Crosses" features one of the four young girls whose visits to Chautauqua set in motion lives lived for Christ. Heroine Ruth struggles with the reality of a sanctified life, mostly due to her refusal to heed the gentle, warning voice of the Lord. Now, "Pansy" (Alden's pen name) has a way of digging around in the reader's heart and asking uncomfortable questions that linger long after the book closes. That's probably why about a week ago, as I reading about Ruth's dilemma, I felt the Lord whispering that verse about anyone who puts his hand to the plow and looks back isn’t worthy of Him. I filed it under “Wuh?” and asked Him to enlighten me. Yesterday, an old Chas Stanley message came to me about how God won’t give you any further direction until you act on the last one He told you—and that “hand to the plow” phrase echoed. I was willing to listen but confused. Was there something I was looking back on, hanging onto and making myself unworthy of Him? I started asking Him to show me what He was talking about…and this morning, He did.

Gently but firmly, the Holy Spirit pointed out what I was looking back on, what I was holding on to that made it awkward (if not impossible) to put my hand fully to the plow—my ultra-fulfilling past as a Christian wife and mother. This past week would have been my 40th wedding anniversary; I still mourn the wrenching death of my marriage and wish I could re-enter that season I always refer to (usually with tears in my eyes) as the happiest time of my life. I know now He’s telling me I must let go of that in order to take hold of His plow and start putting down some serious furrows in my corner of His field. And stop looking back.

I got that “air sucked out of the room” feeling that presages His presence in a very distinct way. Again I heard, “Put your hand to the plow, daughter, and don’t look back…” A slideshow of images started flipping through my mind’s eye and His choice of object lessons was interesting: Lot’s wife, the prophet Samuel, and Dicken’s Miss Havisham.

Mrs. Lot: a wife being mercifully led to a new place of peace and safety who couldn’t help looking back towards her former “beautiful” life. Her longing backwards glance transformed her into a pillar of salt—bitter, immobile, useless except as a warning about the dangers of not moving on, not yearning for a past that’s busily being consumed by God.

Samuel: God rebuked Samuel when the old prophet kept weeping over King Saul’s dethroning. “Now the LORD said to Samuel, ‘You have mourned long enough for Saul. I have rejected him as king of Israel, so fill your flask with olive oil and go to Bethlehem.’” God told me my apron-clad married life had become my Saul. Saul, God's chosen king, was rejected because of his disobedience and Samuel, who had a vested interest in him because he had anointed him, kept clinging to that glorious moment. Because of my ex-husband’s disobedience, my happy Christian lady married-with-kids life is no more. Like Samuel, hanging onto my dead hopes and memories is threatening to destroy my present joy in Him and my future harvest in His field. Trying to return to a place God has departed is dangerous and foolish, just as surely as Saul’s murderous javelins threatened David’s life when the shepherd boy kept trying to sing peace within that disgraced palace. It’s over. Leave already. And shut the door behind you. God’s got something else for you to do.

Charles Dicken’s Miss Havisham: This pathetic character from Great Expectations unexpectedly loomed up, entombed in her wedding finery, cobwebbed and crippled by her reaction to betrayal, unable to do anything but sink deeper into herself and mourn for what could never be and, in actuality, never was. Another vivid object lesson.
So, I’m filing my flask with oil and going to Bethlehem to discover what God has anointed for me. From His birth, Jesus took no thought of His former “happy life” in Heaven, but put His hand to the plow of humility and discomfort, suffering all kinds of indignities and trials in order to bring me to God. “Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your soul. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light,” He says. I’m asking Him to help me drop what’s in my hand, grab the plow, stop looking back, and work in whatever field He’s laid out for me.  

“Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground: for it is time to seek the LORD, till he come and rain righteousness upon you.” Hosea 10:12

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Thus far, but no farther

If you really want to start a bench-clearer, gather a Victorian scientist and a Victorian theologian in a room—or wait, what’s this? They’re working together?!? Despite the popular (Hollywood-fueled) understanding of the 19th century, there was a strange rapport between these natural enemies. Chautauqua, the 19th century think tank, Sunday School campground, and cultural watering hole, welcomed free-thinkers of all stamps and promoted lively discussions under the main tent. W.W. Kinsley’s compact-but-chewy 1893 discourse on the uh-duh compatibility of science and religion, Science and Prayer, combines the era’s high-flown, flourishing prose with microscopic research and mind-over-matter theories.

Like many of his contemporaries, Kinsley relies heavily on the ponderous logic of the time—establishing one argument in a chain he’s sure will lead the reader inextricably to the correct conclusion—his, of course. He sets up his case in the first chapter—his five-fold goal: 1) to convince us “that phenomena and the producing forces with their laws or modes of working, brought to light by scientific investigations in the fields of physics and of metaphysics, harmonize perfectly with the Scriptures view of payer, and abound in suggestions of how God can interfere in nature without destroying any force or abrogating a single law.” (see what I mean about the prose? Whew!) 2) that, as a fact, he has thus actually interfered again and again. 3) that it is not only not presumptuous, but most natural and reasonable, for us to expect that he will interfere for us, insignificant though we may seem to be. 4) that he will interfere because we ask him, doing for us what otherwise he would not have done. 5) And, lastly, that he will not in a single instance withhold any real blessing which is asked for in the right spirit, and the bestowal of which lies within the compass of his power.” (pg 10)

And by golly, he does it! His swaggering scholarship is breathtaking, if flawed. It’s clear there’s not the slightest doubt in his mind that any rational, reasonable person will be convinced by his bulletproof responses. A juggernaut of iron-clad arguments accompanies each of his points, culminating with a literary “ta dah!” after each.

It’s the scarcity of his Scriptural references that surprised me most. Waxing eloquent for ages (and pages), Kinsley nestles gingerbread-embellished quotes from contemporary sages and pulls proofs from many disciples of science with magician-like flourishes, but, when it comes to laying out arguments based on Scripture, he oddly falls back on “common sense.” My CLSC reading list teems with authors who do the same in an attempt to pacify leery, “modern” readers. I figure they assume Bible verses immediately nullify their arguments and their books should be banned with other moth-eaten credos to the boneyard of traditional faith.

His main argument--that God isn’t QUITE as omniscient as many credit Him to be and ergo, doesn’t see some of our free will-based decisions coming--must have stirred up a lot of dust in his world. But he sticks to his guns on the basis of rational reasoning, with nary a Bible verse in sight. (Personally, I could think of about twenty verses that countered his argument, but to what end? He went to his grave secure in his belief and many who wrestled with him are no doubt also shaking hands in Heaven now.)  

In lieu of Bible verses, Kinsley unleashes beautifully penned, Tennyson-like flights of fancy—a sort of literary smoke-and-mirrors, perhaps. Speaking of atoms, for example, he writes: “Over the nature of their being, as well as over the cradle of their birth, there has been thrown a veil of mystery through whose closely woven meshes there comes no ray of revealing light to the anxiously peering eyes of science, and whose hiding folds no hand on earth has power to lift, except the reverent hand of faith.” (p 30) These “angel-winged expectancies” presage the point where his lively imagination steps back. After such verbal flourishes and in the face of truly impenetrable mysteries, he usually cries “uncle” and retreats, heeding the voice of God who instructs “thus far, but no farther…”.

Like many of his contemporaries, Kinsley glories in the century itself, despite its trademark cynicism bred from its passion for all things scientific. He celebrates: “A reaction from this paralyzing skepticism has already set in. A faith fervent as that felt before science had birth, seems destined again to prevail, and to be the outcome of this very spirit of inquiry…Reappearing this time as the ripe result of this nineteenth century’s tireless and fearless research into time’s deepest mysteries, I cannot see how ever again it can lose its hold on the hearts of men.” (pg 111)

Wouldn’t he be surprised?

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the Holy is understanding.” Proverbs 9:10

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Game of Thrones

What I knew about the Crusades was limited to Robin Hood movies, Ridley Scott’s rip-roaring Kingdom of Heaven, and a few black-and-white films (notably, Cecil B. DeMille’s historically off-base The Crusades, starring the luminescent Loretta Young). My Hollywood glasses quite effectively obscured actual facts and I’m not the only one suffering from Crusades confusion.

According to author Rodney Stark, there’s been a smear campaign in place for centuries that assigns total blame to the European Crusaders and excuses the beleaguered and besmirched Muslims on the ground of self-defense. This Euro-bashing view has gained wide acceptance, especially recently, as Western Civilization retreats from anything resembling criticism towards the Eastern religions in general and especially Muslims in particular. God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades examines infrequently cited yet indisputable historical facts to expose a fresh (and undoubtedly unpopular) perspective, detailing ways pre-Crusade Muslims (led by jihadist, land-grabbing rulers) invaded Europe (seriously, who knew?) and set in motion a deadly rotation of retaliation and revenge.  

I stumbled into this blazing controversy, all unawares, simply looking for a 21st Century perspective on the Crusades. I’d just finished reading the Chautauqua-listed, compulsively fascinating 19th century novel In His Name by Edward Everett Hale. This page-turner was set in medieval Europe, in the days of the final Crusade (see last post here). Hale’s novel focused on those left behind in France; Stark’s book jumps the channel, leaves fiction behind, and takes us to “bridle-high blood” Jerusalem and surrounding holy lands. Although the pace of this book drags at times, hindered by having to pick our way through heaps of corpses and complicated battle plans, the professorial author neatly bundles hundreds of years into simple, non-academic segments.

Stark makes a compellingly solid, if non-PC, case for the Crusades to be more about a heartfelt response to infidels in Jerusalem/Holy Land than a landgrab by disinherited younger sons. Using reams of historic documents (including property transfers, birth records, ship lading invoices, etc), Stark traces the makeup of the Crusades crews—and they were largely nobility (many, many of them intertwined family units) who sold off inherited land, property, and the family jewels and sewed crosses on their tunics for the dubious glory of swathing through Muslim hordes and more than likely, dying in the process. Amazing. Egged on by barefoot prophets and Papal promises of reduced Purgatory time, armor-encrusted royals by the thousands boarded ships and sailed to glory in the Holy Lands. They were joined by indulgence-seeking rabble—these rarely made it to Palestine’s shores, dying of disease, drowning or picked off by Muslim bandits along the way. The ever-intriguing Knights Templar come in for some particular notice—good and bad—as does the famous warrior-king Saladin (turns out he's not exactly the gentleman portrayed in popular fiction).  
As is often the case in these heroic times, superstars emerge. While Hale celebrated mostly fictitious protagonists, Stark turns a lowkey spotlight on bruisers like Norman Crusader Prince Bohemond, named for his massive physique. When Bohemond, with his wickedly strategic mind and audaciousness, strides from dusty history to vibrant life, somehow, you can’t help dashing over to Google and seeing if anyone snapped a selfie with him. Sadly, we’ll have to be content with literary portraits, although today's cartoonists have discovered him (see hilarious cartoon below). Medieval contemporary Anna Konmene, fourteen-year-old Byzantine princess and historian, penned this about him: “For by his nostrils nature had given free passage for the high spirit which bubbled up from his heart. A certain charm hung about this man but was partly marred by a general air of the horrible.” Can a Game of Thrones-style epic starring Chris Hemsworth be far behind?

Atrocities abound in this centuries-long conflict—on both sides—and facts support that no one was innocent and everyone was guilty and the whole thing was truly horrible and a gigantic waste of life.

So, I ask myself—what if I lived then and heard that the places where my precious Lord Jesus walked were overrun with those making it their special task to deface and defile (in some pretty horrendous ways) everything that Christianity held sacred? Would I unload my heritage and leave my homeland to defend these sacred sites? Or would I, by God’s grace, be able to recognize that the more important defense was to keep my heart—and the Name of Christ—from being defiled by hate and bloodletting?

"For 'the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,' just as it is written." Romans 2:24